March 25

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Shining Our Light Into the Darkness by Christina Soontornvat

When I tell people that my new novel, A WISH IN THE DARK, is a middle grade twist on Les Miserablés set in a magical Thai-inspired world, I often get looks of genuine surprise. I understand their reactions – it’s not the most expected mash-up in the world. But looking back at how the book came together, it feels like a natural adaptation.

Les Miserablés was my favorite book as a teenager, and I was equally obsessed with the musical. But as much as I loved the stage version, I never loved that it skimmed over my favorite character.

Even if you’ve never read the book, you may be familiar with the main characters: Jean Valjean (the convict on the run) and Inspector Javert (the upright policeman determined to track him down). But the first volume of Victor Hugo’s novel is actually dedicated to a lesser known character: a priest, Monseignur Bienvenu. Today’s writers could never get away with not introducing the main character until hundreds of pages in! But this priest is pivotal to the story. His protection of the known criminal Jean Valjean sets the wheels of Valjean’s new life in motion and establishes one of the main themes of the book: compassion.

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In Hugo’s novel, one act of compassion or one act of cruelty can reverberate through a character’s entire life and impact everyone around them. As a teen reader, this message had a deep impact on me. At a time in my life when I felt restless and self-absorbed, it was empowering to learn that anyone has the power to affect a big change with a seemingly small act of compassion. And it was eye opening to realize how well our society can justify  acts of cruelty by pretending that compassion has no role in justice, law, or order.

I feel a little self-conscious that I’m being too dramatic in saying that one book changed my life. But this one kind of did. Sometimes if we’re lucky, we read the right book right when we need it. And I happened to read this book at a time in my life when I needed it most, when I was deciding what I wanted to do with my life and who I wanted to be.

Decades later, after I had published my first middle grade novels, I turned back to Les Misérables, wondering if I could use it as the basis for a children’s book. After all, it has all the ingredients for a gripping story: conflicted characters, a twisty plot, fast-paced action. But I couldn’t wrap my head around how to manage such a complicated task.

The very first writing course I took was taught by the brilliant YA author Margo Rabb, and her very first class topic was on theme. According to Margo, theme is what gives a story a beating heart. It both simplifies and deepens all the beats in a plot, and ties each character together.

When I returned to my project with the theme of compassion as my guide, the story began to fall into place. I had been toying with the idea of setting the novel in a fantastical Thailand. Once I knew that compassion would be the overarching theme, everything else clicked into place. Of course the story would take place in Thailand, and of course the bishop’s role would be played by a Buddhist monk. Compassion is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism, and the monk in my story, Father Cham, is a beacon of compassion. He possesses a very strong magical power: he can make wishes come true. But his real magic is his kindness and sympathy for others. His compassion is the spark that lights a million matches—a fire that catches and spreads from heart to heart.

I always knew that I would be happy to share this message of compassion and justice with young readers. But I never realized how grateful I would be to send this story out into the world at this moment. Now, when so many of our fellow humans are suffering, this is the time to shine our light into the darkness.

 

Christina Soontornvat grew up in a small Texas town where she spent many childhood days behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant with her nose in a book. She is the author of many books for young readers, including The Blunders, illustrated by Colin Jack. She now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.